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By Ben Wilkins, CEO, Good Boost

‘Strength’ can be defined in many ways, from emotional resilience, to mental agility, to how much iron you can pump. The UK Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines were updated in 2019 to include strength training twice a week alongside moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise. Guidelines such as these play an important role in informing the public and other stakeholders on the evidence underpinning the benefits of more active lifestyles.

However, strength training isn’t just something for tank top-clad gym-goers to prioritise – maintaining and improving muscle strength is crucial for everyone. This is particularly true as we age, since it allows us to live independently, ensuring we have the power necessary for good physical function in the everyday activities.

Carrying groceries home from the shops: STRENGTH.

Stepping up from the road onto the curb: STRENGTH.

Moving a pan of water from the sink to the stove: STRENGTH.

Going from sitting in a chair to standing: STRENGTH.

The importance of strength is being championed by a consortium of organisations, including ukactive, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, Centre for Ageing Better, Sport England, and other high-profile institutions. The campaign is led by both evidence on the importance of maintaining strength into later life, and insight into the barriers and enablers to encouraging people to include more strength activity in their everyday lives.

A core focus of the campaign concerns how to create new behaviours and habits, through conversations with healthcare professionals, motivational messaging and creating environments where people can easily include strength activity in their lifestyle.

The Centre for Ageing Better’s 2019 report: Raising the bar on strength and balance highlights the critical need for community-based provision of strength and balance programmes. Local programmes remove the ‘friction’ of long waiting times or travel times and deliver strength exercise options that have social connections and emotional support as standard – something which is difficult to replicate with an exercise sheet or an app. Combining low ‘friction’ with connections and support is more likely to result in people taking up and continuing exercise activities.

Community provision and social prescribing

Social prescribing is a key element of the NHS Long-Term Plan, where community navigators (social prescribers) support people with motivational interviewing and connect them with local services in their community that support the treatment and management of a wide range of health conditions. These include long-term health conditions such as arthritis, diabetes and heart conditions, which physical activity has been proven to benefit.

Leisure centres and gyms offer the perfect community assets: local accessibility, existing transport links, easy self-referral and welcoming settings with excellent staff.

By 2023, social prescribers are projected to be handling nearly 900,000 appointments a year through personalised, local activities.

The rollout of social prescribing combined with leisure centres presents a unified solution to deliver a truly community-based provision, offering both practical and emotional support to those who need it most. What’s more, beyond just being the ‘right thing to do’ by benefitting our communities, it presents a compelling commercial opportunity.

The ‘new membership base’

Some surveys in 2020 and 2021 reported that the ‘traditional’ gym members of 18 to 54-year-olds were contemplating an exercise future focused around online apps, rather than brick-and-mortar facilities. A report by the BBC highlighted the motives of some consumers permanently switching to digital gyms. While fitness and swimming activities are second only to walking for driving the UK’s activity levels, leisure centre and gym members still only represent a minority of the total adult population. The Fitness Report 2019 highlighted some key stats: pre-pandemic, 15.6% of UK adults attended gyms and leisure centres, leaving 84.4% of the UK population as potential members, with more than four-fifths of people living within two miles of a leisure centre or gym.

What’s more, mindsets are shifting: the Sports Participation: Impact of COVID-19 report highlights that two thirds of people are more concerned with staying fit now than before the pandemic and would like to take part in more sport activities.

With the growing prioritisation of personal fitness and wellbeing as supporting overall health, this is the ideal opportunity for the leisure industry to design and deliver services that appeal to the non-traditional gym member. Sessions with a focus on personalisation, individual growth and peer-communities, rather than high-tempo, competitive and intimidating classes, could provide the most direct path to membership growth.

Untapped potential: 84.4% of the population

This vast majority of the population have not previously viewed the gym as their space. With the prospect of declining memberships and revenues due to the plethora of digital options available, designing options for people living with health conditions can allow leisure centres to do right by their communities and their bottom line.

Now is the time to tap into this potential: with calls to action from the strength campaign, all long-term health condition charities advocating the role of physical activity, the roll-out of social prescribing and the shift in the public’s mindset, the planets are aligning for an integrated leisure solution. Virtual classes are luring in traditional members from gyms, but leisure centres and gyms, physical assets, have attributes no digital service can replicate. A local, in-person service that’s inclusive, accessible and tangible, and delivers the critical ingredient of emotional support.

To learn more about social prescribing and the opportunity for the physical activity sector in health and social care, read this blog by Kenny Butler, ukactive’s Strategic Lead for Health and Wellbeing.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ukactive